From the Chicago Reader (January 6, 1995). — J.R.
Many friends and colleagues have been moaning about what a bad year 1994 was for movies, but I disagree. The main issue, I think, isn’t so much how we feel about the same movies — though there are a few differences there, including in some cases where and when we happened to see them — as it is what we saw. If you’re lucky enough to be living in Chicago, you had loads of terrific movies to see last year, new as well as old, and if you didn’t see very many of them, it’s possible that you were looking in the wrong places — where the mass media was telling you to look. Because of their running times, my two favorite films, the seven-hour Satantango and the nearly 26-hour The Second Heimat, received only limited exposure, yet I refuse to accept the standard alibi of most critics who neglected to see them — that they were too difficult or esoteric for the general public. I found them easier to sit through and vastly more involving and pleasurable than such overhyped and overattended European monoliths as Germinal and Queen Margot, which to the best of my knowledge gave little enjoyment to most people.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 7, 1994). — J.R.
One of the funnier remarks in Variety late last year came from a Universal Pictures executive who noted that because of the special nature of Schindler’s List his company wasn’t really promoting the picture, but simply informing people it was out. I’d wager that if the other movies on my ten-best list had been given the same amount of “nonpromotion” — one of those modest multimillion-dollar campaigns — you would have heard nearly as much about them.
As it happens, only about half the items on my list have had — or are having — a normal commercial run in Chicago. Still, Bitter Moon, which has so far had only one fleeting engagement here (in the fall, at the Polish film festival), is expected to have a belated U.S. release early this year, and Silverlake Life: The View From Here was aired nationally on PBS.
The limited number of Hollywood films on my list and the prominence of Chinese language ones demands some comment. It used to be a truism that American cinema excelled in unpretentious entertainment but faltered when it came to art movies, while the standard line about foreign films — meaning the foreign films Americans saw — tended toward the reverse.… Read more »
The following, which I wrote circa March 2004, was commissioned for a Criterion box set; my thanks to Liz Helfgott, my editor there, for giving me the go-ahead to reprint this. — J.R.
Jean Renoir’s Trilogy of Spectacle
by Jonathan Rosenbaum
Movie trilogies can be created by either filmmakers or critics. When Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote and directed The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1973), he made no bones about calling them his Trilogy of Life. But when Michelangelo Antonioni followed L’avventura (1960) with La notte (1961) and L’eclisse (1962), the intention was mainly apparent in the titles and a few echoes noted by critics, such as the presence of building sites at the beginning of the first and at the end of the third. As for the so-called Koker trilogy of Where is the Friend’s House? (1986), Life and Nothing More… (1992), and Through the Olive Trees (1994), Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami explicitly refuses to yoke them together in this fashion—–which hasn’t prevented many critics and programmers from doing so.… Read more »
Here are ten more of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007). – J.R.
1996 / Irma Vep – Maggie Cheung stealing Arsinée Khanjian’s jewels
France (Daica Films). Director: Olivier Assayas. Cast: Maggie Cheung, Arsinée Khanjian.
Why It’s Key: If a movie can be said to have an unconscious, here’s where this one’s secret is buried.
Costumed in a tight black latex suit, Maggie Cheung, playing herself, is in Paris to play the title role in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 crime serial, Les vampires. She also seems to be the object of the sexual fantasies of everyone working on the film —- most noticeably the director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and the woman handling costumes (Nathalie Richard).
After what seems like a restless, sleepless evening in her hotel room, Cheung goes out into the hallway, still in her suit, stealthily climbs the stairs, and, after spying a maid delivering a tray to a room and leaving, sneaks into the room herself. Still hidden, she sees a nude woman (Khanjian, wife and lead actress of Atom Egoyan) describing her lonely boredom on the phone to someone named Fred, then glimpses the woman’s jewels in another room, which she promptly steals.… Read more »
Here are ten of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007). – J.R.
1990 / Close Up – The motorcycle ride of Makhmalbaf and Sabzian.
Iran. Director: Abbas Kiarostami. Cast: Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Hossein Sabzian. Original title: Nema-ye Nazdi.
Why It’s Key: A convicted imposter finally meets the man he’s been impersonating, and they set off together to visit the family that was fooled.
Hossein Babzian, a bookbinder, emerges from a jail sentence for having impersonated famous filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to ingratiate himself with the well-to-do Ahankhah family, pretending he was planning a movie about them. He’s greeted by the real Makhmalbaf, arriving on his motorbike to take him to visit the Ahankhahs, and filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami and his crew, who have arranged this meeting, are filming the entire encounter from a distance. We hear them saying that Makhmalbaf’s lapel mike is faulty, and notice that the dialogue between Makhmalbaf and Sabzian (“Do you prefer being Makhmalbaf or being Sabzian? I’m tired of being me”) periodically becomes inaudible — on the street, after Sabzian climbson the back of the motorbike, and when they stop briefly for Sabzian to buy flowers for the Ahankhans.… Read more »
Here are five more of the 40-odd short pieces I wrote for Chris Fujiwara’s excellent, 800-page volume Defining Moments in Movies (London: Cassell, 2007). – J.R.
1957 / Paths of Glory – Timothy Carey kills a cockroach.
U.S. Director: Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey.
Why It’s Key: A quintessential character actor achieves his apotheosis when his character kills a bug.
To cover up his vain blunders, a French general (George Macready) in World War I orders three of his soldiers (Ralph Meeker, Joe Turkel, Timothy Carey), chosen almost at random, to be court-martialed and then shot by a firing squad for dereliction of duty, as an example to their fellow soldiers. When their last meal is brought to them, they can mainly only talk desperately about futile plans for escape and the hopelessness of their plight. Then Corporal Paris (Meeker) looks down at a cockroach crawling across the table and says, “See that cockroach? Tomorrow morning, we’ll be dead and it’ll be alive. It’ll have more contact with my wife and child than I will. I’ll be nothing, and it’ll be alive.” Ferrol smashes the cockroach with his fist and says, almost dreamily, “Now you got the edge on him.”
We’re apt to laugh at the absurdism and grotesquerie of the moment — especially Timothy Carey’s deadpan delivery, as if he had a mouthful of mush and was soft-pedaling the phrase like Lester Young on his tenor sax.… Read more »
Three brief entries commissioned by Chris Fujiwara and submitted in March 2009 for the updated Italian edition of his stupendous 2007 collection Defining Moments in Movies, entitled Cinema: 1000 Momenti Fondamentali. — J.R.
Rossellini goes to India
Roberto Rossellini’s extended trip to India comes at the end of his richest period as a filmmaker in which his various staged encounters between fiction and non-fiction were most adventurous. At the war’s end he was primarily concerned with the human devastation in Italy and Germany, but once he began working with Ingrid Bergman, with whom he was living after their affair busted up both their marriages, domestic issues came to the fore, particularly in such features as Europa 51, Voyage to Italy, and Fear. Other bold forays during this period include a feature about Saint Francis of Assisi, a comic fantasy called The Machine That Killed Bad People (about a still camera that turns its subjects into statues), and a direct-sound recording of a play starring Bergman, made at a time when all films in Italy were dubbed.
When he traveled to India at age 51, Rossellini worked concurrently on his masterpiece India Matri Buhmi (1959), a set of interlocking tales and commentaries which Jean-Luc Godard once called “the creation of the world,” and a ten-part television miniseries that was broadcast in both France and Italy the same year.… Read more »
From The Village Voice (May 13, 2008). — J.R.
Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard
By Richard Brody
Metropolitan Books, 701 pp., $40
Will we ever get a critical biography of Welles, Kubrick, or Eastwood as good as Brian Boyd’s two volumes on Vladimir Nabokov? Probably not. Novelists basically have friends, relatives, and editors to be interviewed, but with high-profile movie directors, one also has to contend with countless employees, potential as well as actual. And the complications introduced by showbiz gossip about mythical and controversial figures are endless: While these stories make for compulsive reading, they interfere with criticism and scholarship.
With all that extra and unwieldy baggage in tow, a biographer may find it impossible to create a critical through-line that’s both persuasive and comprehensive. Even in the best books of this kind, either the life overrides the films (as in Joseph McBride’s Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success) or the criticism trumps the biography (as in Chris Fujiwara’s Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall). And taking on a maven as prolific, innovative, and constantly changing as Jean-Luc Godard, biographer Richard Brody is clearly asking for trouble.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Brody’s Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard is that it’s 700 large-format pages long, yet winds up seeming too short — a tribute to both the author and his 77-year-old subject.… Read more »
A chapter from my book Film: The Front Line 1983 (Arden Press, 1983), still in print. — J.R.
Jacques Pierre Louis Rivette
Born in Rouen, France, 1928
Perhaps no single figure in this survey dramatizes the contradictions of the avant-garde film as an institution and social force better than Jacques Rivette — a major filmmaker who has consistently been denied credentials, recognition, or any sort of protection by the “official” avant-garde establishment, even though his work has generally been shunned just as consistently by the mainstream power structures. Who, then, gives a damn about Jacques Rivette? More people than either establishment cares to acknowledge or deal with. As someone who has written a good deal about Rivette, programmed his films in three countries, and edited the only book devoted to him in English (or French), I can report that everywhere I go, I meet passionate Rivette fanatics.
In London, I once met an American who dutifully translated most of Rivette’s old Cahiers du Cinéma reviews in his spare time, simply for his own amusement. I also once shared a Hampstead maisonette with a brilliant Israeli-born lecturer in philosophy of art whom I took to a screening of the four-hour Out 1: Spectre; he spent most of the rest of the night telling me why it was the greatest film ever made — only a sleepless day or so before he temporarily flipped his lid and tried to chop down part of our kitchen wall with a hatchet.… Read more »
From Sight and Sound, Spring 1989. — J.R.
The news of John Cassavetes’ death reached the Rotterdam Festival just as his retrospective was winding to a close, and my initial response was to recall Billy Wilder’s remark at Ernst Lubitsch’s funeral. ‘No more Lubitsch,’ a friend said, and Wilder replied, ‘Worse than that — no more Lubitsch films.’ On the face of it, it’s hard to think of many directors more dissimilar than Lubitsch and Cassavetes, but each brought to cinema a kind of personal passion that it’s never had before or since, despite the fact that each has had a host of imitators and emulators. It even seems possible that Cassavetes influenced almost as many directors as Lubitsch did. Just for starters, one could cite Peter Bogdanovich, Jean Eustache, Henry Jaglom, Elaine May, Rob Nilsson, Maurice Pialat, Jacques Rivette and Martin Scorsese.
In the case of Cassavetes, though, what I had in mind was something specific — the fact that he hadn’t lived long enough to make a film of his remarkable play A Woman of Mystery, which I had been lucky enough to see during its limited run in a tiny Beverly Hills theatre the summer before last, and which remains one of the key theatrical experiences of my life.… Read more »
From the Chicago Reader (January 28, 2016). — J.R.
Son of Saul ****
Directed by László Nemes
“The sense of being lost is what we wanted to convey. That is what was missing before [in most earlier movies about the Holocaust]: one individual being lost.” — László Nemes to Andrea Gronvall, Movie City News
László Nemes’ Hungarian debut feature, Son of Saul, opening this week at the Music Box, is easily the most exciting new film I’ve seen over the past year, and a casual look at the prizes and accolades it’s received over the past eight months, starting with the Grand Prix and the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes, shows that I’m far from alone in feeling this way. Even my colleagues who dislike or dismiss the films concede that it’s a stunning technical achievement. But the moment one starts to describe what the film does, or even what it’s about, a certain amount of dissension sets in.
Nemes and his lead actor Géza Röhrig have consistently described their intentions as wanting viewers to experience viscerally and as accurately as possible what Sonderkommando members went through in Auschwitz in October 1944. These were the Jewish prisoners obliged to lead other Jews into the gas chambers, search their clothes for valuables before, during, and after they were being gassed, and then dispose of their bodies — carting them off, burning them, and then shoveling away their ashes, receiving in return slightly better food and quarters before eventually being exterminated themselves.… Read more »
Published, in a slightly shorter version, in the August 2014 Sight and Sound. — J.R.
JEAN-LUC GODARD, CINEMA HISTORIAN
By Michael Witt. Indiana University Press, 276pp. £20.65.
paperback, ISBN 9780253007285
Reviewed by Jonathan Rosenbaum
There has been a slew of important books lately devoted to post-60s Godard, including Daniel Morgan’s Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema, Jerry White’s Two Bicycles: The Work of Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville, and Godard’s own Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, translated by Timothy Barnard — the latter including Michael Witt’s introductory, 55-page ‘Archaeology of Histoire(s) du cinéma’. But none seems quite as durable, both as a beautiful object and as a user-friendly intellectual guide, as Witt’s superbly lucid, jargon-free book about Histoire(s) du cinéma, Jean-Luc Godard, Cinema Historian.
Copiously illustrated with frame enlargements that complement the text without ever seeming redundant, this examination of the philosophical, historical, and aesthetic underpinnings of Godard’s masterwork isn’t only about a four and a half-hour video; it’s also about the work’s separate reconfigurations as a series of books, a set of CDs, and a 35-millimeter feature of 84 minutes (Moments choisis des Histoire(s) du cinéma).… Read more »
Written for Whose Cinema?, a Critics’ Choice Slow Criticism Project booklet published at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, January 27 — February 7, 2016, and in the February issue of the online Filmkrant. — J.R.
“Back then [in Hungary in the late 1970s], it was the censorship of the politics, and now we have the censorship of the market. What has changed? The climate is the same. If you are a filmmaker, it is always fucked up.”
–Béla Tarr at the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), 2012
“Piracy isn’t a victimless crime,” is what we read at the beginnings of an inordinate number of DVDs and Blu-Rays — to which I’m often tempted to reply that capitalism isn’t always or invariably a victimless crime either, especially when the victim turns out to be the consumer. And the fact that piracy is usually regarded as a crime and capitalism usually isn’t should mark the beginning of any clear-headed discussion of who (or what) cinema should belong to.
If “Whose cinema?” is a question that needs to be answered, we first have to add another question, and an even thornier one — “What cinema (or whose cinema) are we talking about?” — before we can even think about formulating an answer.… Read more »
Written in October 2012 for what was supposed to have been the first (and, so far, only) translated edition of my most recent collection, although it has never come out. There is, however, a Korean translation of my earlier collection Essential Cinema, which is due to come out later this month (with a new Afterword, available here).
In retrospect, I’m sorry that I didn’t find some way of mentioning Lee Chang-dong’s extraordinary Poetry (2010), my favorite Korean film [see all the stills below] — and one that, incidentally, helps to explain the reason for my alienation from most of the other South Korean films I’ve seen and their excessive reliance on rape and serial killers as subjects (something that I was embarrassed to bring up in this Preface, written at the request of the publisher). This film in fact addresses the theme of rape and its role in Korean society quite directly. — J.R.
My acquaintance with cinephilia in South Korea is limited. My only first- hand knowledge comes from my experience as a juror on Indie Vision at the Jeonju International Film Festival in the Spring of 2006 and my acquaintance over a longer period with the brilliant and discerning critic and programmer Un-Seong Yoo, who worked for that festival for many years and, more recently, was my fellow juror on the New Directors jury at the San Sebastian Film Festival in the Fall of 2011.I credit Un-Seong in particular for some of the crucial choices and selections made for the extraordinary Jeonju Digital Project that began in the year 2000, and has already yielded such masterpieces as Jia Zhang-ke’s In Public (2001), Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Twelve Twenty (2006), and Pedro Costa’s The Rabbit Hunters (2007).… Read more »
Written at the request of Jae-cheol Lim, the editor of this Korean edition of Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (second edition, 2008), which was translated by Ahn Kearn Hyung and is scheduled for publication late this month. — J.R.
Afterword to the Korean Edition of ESSENTIAL CINEMA (January 2016):
The closer one comes to the present, the harder and more hazardous it becomes to compile a list of the best films. As I’ve recently pointed out elsewhere, one should consider the lengths of time between Jean Vigo’s death and the first appearances of Zéro de conduite and L’Atalante in the U.S. (thirteen years), or between the first screening of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 and its recent appearances on Blu-Ray (forty-five years), and it becomes obvious that the popular custom of listing the best films of any given year is unavoidably a mythological undertaking derived more from faith than from any secure knowledge. By the same token, film history in the present should be divided between important filmmakers skilled and successful in hawking their own goods, from Alfred Hitchcock to Spike Lee to Lars von Trier, and those who, for one reason or another, aren’t — a less definitive roll call that includes, among many others, Charles Burnett, Ebrahim Golestan, Luc Moullet, Peter Thompson, Orson Welles, and John Gianvito.… Read more »